Lee Kuan Yew: Singapore’s Leadership & Global Powerhouse Transformation

Leadership Transformed Singapore

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Lee Kuan Yew - The Leader Singapore Needed & Deserved

Yew's Catchphrase: "The Impossible Can Happen!"

Lee Kuan Yew was the first and longest-serving Prime Minister of Singapore. It was his leadership that transformed Singapore from a third-world country into a thriving metropolitan city in just three decades.

The outlook for Singapore was not bright when Yew took power. Singapore was headed for failure or subservience to a more powerful neighboring country. Singapore was not blessed with many natural resources to give it any type of economic advantage in the region, let alone the world.

Lee Kuan Yew thought otherwise.

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“His vision,” wrote Henry Kissinger, “was of a state that would not simply survive but prevail by excelling. Superior intelligence, discipline, and ingenuity would substitute for resources.”  In a press conference, referring to the airline pilot strike of Singapore Air, he said, "I have spent a lifetime building this (referring to the city of Singapore), and as long as I am in charge, no one is going to knock it down." He was the leader Singapore needed, and it took him a mere 65 minutes to end the airline pilot strike.

A Short Biography of Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew was born on September 16, 1923, as the eldest child of Lee Chin Koon. He studied in the top Singapore schools and went to the London School of Economics briefly for his university education before moving to Cambridge, where he obtained his Law degree.

He returned to Singapore, where he became a legal advisor to students and trade unions. He made many connections that would aid him in his political career later in life.

His eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, served as Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Finance, Minister for Trade and Industry, and Second Minister for Defence under his father and then under his father's successor, Goh Chok Tong. Lee would follow in his father's footsteps and become Prime Minister in 2004.

Start of his Political Career

Lee Kuan Yew started his political career under a Pro-British Progressive Party as an election agent. Soon after, he co-founded the People’s Action Party (PAP) with the aim of ending British colonial rule and attaining self-governance for Singapore. On June 5, 1959, Yew became the first Prime Minister of Singapore when PAP won the most seats in the legislative assembly.

To end British rule, Yew pushed for a merger with Malaysia. The Federation of Malaysia was formed on September 16, 1963, but the integration proved unsuitable for both sides. Two years later, the then-Malaysian Prime Minister decided that Singapore should leave the federation.

The choice to leave was the lowest point of Yew’s life but also the turning point for Singapore’s success. Although Yew was in anguish, he never gave up on his vision for Singapore. With Yew at the helm, an independent Singapore developed into the thriving metropolitan city it is today.

After stepping down as Prime Minister in 1990, Yew served as Senior Minister and then Minister Mentor in the government, advising the country’s new generation of leaders on national issues. He passed away on March 23rd, 2015, from pneumonia.

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Due to Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore Became A Success Story

Singapore is one of the world’s greatest success stories, and Yew is behind it. Although many critics question his style of leadership and describe it as autocratic and dictatorial, Singapore’s meteoric rise as a city-state is undeniable.

Leadership Lessons from Lee Kuan Yew

1. Say It As It Is

One of Lee’s most apparent qualities was his straightforwardness. He was not afraid to be blunt about what he saw as the truth. This approach came across as too abrasive for some, but Yew was unwavering as he believed his directness was a strength.

Yew believed strongly in being honest. This included being key for a leader. The best thing you can do for your team, according to Yew, is to acknowledge and speak the truth. It might ruffle a few feathers, but allowing your team to face reality is probably the best thing you can do for them. They know where you stand.

Although some might be offended or feel uncomfortable, you will gain a lot of respect for doing so. People know that they can trust you. Trust is vital for any leader.

2. Plan Your Leadership Succession

Yew planned for succession years before he stepped down as Prime Minister of Singapore. He saw the importance of grooming the next generation to lead the nation. As the saying goes, there is no success without a successor.

Your organization must transcend you, and you must be humble enough to acknowledge that. Strive to build a team centered around a mission or purpose instead of an organization focused on you.

Be generous with sharing your experiences and advice with the next generation of leaders you are grooming. Equip them with the information and knowledge they need to continue growing the organization. A great leader will ensure that those that step into his shoes have the best chance of success.

3. Stay Tenacious

Yew went through his toughest period during the separation of Malaysia and Singapore. His shedding tears on public television marked one of Singapore’s most historic moments. He showed raw emotion; he showed he cared about not just Singapore but the people. He was loyal, and he wanted to build something great. And that he did. But the odds were against him.

Even with the setback of Malaysia rejecting Singapore, Lee never gave up. He strengthened his resolve and continued to believe that he could develop Singapore into what he envisioned it to be.

A leader must have this resolve to press on no matter how difficult the circumstances. It is this quality that separates the good from the great. Anyone can lead well when conditions are favorable, but it is your conduct in times of adversity that distinguishes you as an excellent leader.

Moreover, when you continually choose to press on, you will develop tenacity and persistence that will help you throughout your leadership journey.

Top Ten Rules for Success from Lee Kuan Yew

  1. Follow The Rainbow.
    Yew chastised the generation under 35 years of age because they didn't know the struggle that older generations in Singapore had experienced. They expected the same standard of living as a young adult that their parents had worked their lifetime to achieve. Having strong economic growth year after year was something they took for granted. He was disappointed they were selfish. Unwilling to sacrifice personal and family wealth for the benefit of society. Yew cautioned those who would listen that this way of thinking was dangerous, as things can go wrong very quickly. He knew it wasn't enough to just have an airline or a port for the city but to be one of the most competitive in the world. He wanted his citizens to be challenged. To continue to strive to be the best and never settle for being average. Yew would often say, "There's a glorious rainbow that beckons those with the spirit of adventure. And there are rich findings at the end of that rainbow. Follow that rainbow and ride it. He knew not all would be rich financially, but he knew that the entire society would be lifted up as a whole if everyone was striving to be better.
  2. Never Give Up.
    Yew was astute in delivering ideas to people. Instilling into them determination is the great equalizer. Not giving up and focusing on finding the solution to a problem. If you are not successful with your first, second, or third try, try it a fourth time. Do not give up and focus on finding that solution because it is there.
  3. Be Open-Minded.
    Do not fool yourself into thinking you can do everything yourself. Get help in areas where you are weak. Do not be afraid to say, "I was wrong; this is not the way; we need to change course." If you are prideful and close-minded, you will fail to achieve your potential because you refuse to abandon an idea or a course of action that is no good.
  4. Make The Best of Your Life.
    Everyone is dealt a different deck of cards in life. The DNA inside of you is fixed by your mother and your father. He would often joke that if he decided to be an artist, he would starve, for that was not in the deck that was handed to him. Do not do something that you were not favored by nature to do.
  5. Be Passionate!
    "Whoever governs Singapore must have iron in them or give it up. This is not a game of cards; this is your life and mine." He was a strong leader with a great deal of passion and admonished others to have the same fiery passion for what they did.
  6. Stand Your Ground.
    You have so much at stake in your life, your career, and your family to afford to be intimidated on any level. Always stand your ground. You know what is right and fight for it.
  7. Show Effort.
    The current generation does not understand what it is like to be poor. Yew realized this, and instead of living in the palace, he stayed at home; he and his wife had to bring up their children to be self-reliant. He believes if you do not make an effort, you can end up back where you once were.
  8. Learn From Your Own Experiences.
    You will fail. It is part of life. Learn from your own experiences, and do not make the same mistake twice. Do not dwell on the past, but look to the future with a clearer mind and an understanding of what does not work.
  9. Be Consistent.
    Three journalists analyzed 40 years of speeches from Yew, and they found consistency to be the prevailing trend. It was not that Yew was immovable in his thinking, quite the contrary, but his passion, his love of the Singapore people, his worth ethic, etc., was consistent. In other words, he did not work harder in an election year; he worked hard every day.
  10. Dedicate Your Life To Something Great.
    Yew dedicated his life to making Singapore great after it split from Malaysia. He would often say he was no one's stooge. He devoted himself to making Singapore better for each generation. And he succeeded.
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Quotes from Lee Kuan Yew

Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.”

If you can’t force or are unwilling to force your people to follow you, with or without threats, you are not a leader.”

What I fear is complacency. When things always become better, people tend to want more for less work.”

If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try. There is no other way you can govern a Chinese society."

I do not yet know of a man who became a leader as a result of having undergone a leadership course.”

I always tried to be correct, not politically correct.”

Low salaries will draw in the hypocrites who sweet talk their way into power in the name of public service, but once in charge, will show their true color and ruin the country."

If you deprive yourself of outsourcing and your competitors do not, you’re putting yourself out of business.”

When you're Singapore, and your existence depends on performance - extraordinary performance, better than your competitors - when that performance disappears because the system on which it's been based becomes eroded, then you've lost everything... I try to tell the younger generation that, and they say the old man is playing the same record; we've heard it all before. I happen to know how we got here, and I know how we can unscramble it."

Who is known as the father of Singapore?

Of course, it is Lee Kuan Yew, known as "The Founding Father of Singapore." He not only transformed a small "outpost" that was largely forgotten by the world into one of the least corrupt and wealthiest countries in Asia. If it weren't for Yew, Singapore would look vastly different than it does today.

Some possible differences might include:

  1. Slower economic growth: Lee Kuan Yew was instrumental in transforming Singapore into a global economic powerhouse by attracting foreign investment, developing infrastructure, and implementing sound economic policies. Without his vision and strategies, Singapore might have experienced slower economic growth and not achieved its current status as a global financial center.

  2. Less emphasis on multiculturalism: Lee Kuan Yew promoted racial harmony and multiculturalism as essential components of Singapore's identity. In his absence, there might have been less focus on these aspects, potentially leading to increased racial tensions and social unrest.

  3. Weaker political stability: Lee Kuan Yew's strong leadership and the political stability he fostered through the People's Action Party (PAP) have been critical to Singapore's success. Without him, Singapore might have faced more political uncertainty and instability.

  4. Different education system: Lee Kuan Yew placed a strong emphasis on education as a key driver of Singapore's development. Without his focus on education, the country might not have developed the world-class education system it has today, which has been a significant factor in Singapore's economic success.

  5. Environmental and urban planning: Lee Kuan Yew's vision for Singapore included a focus on environmental sustainability and well-planned urban development. Without his leadership, Singapore might not have become the clean, green, and well-organized city-state it is today.

It is important to note that this analysis is speculative and cannot account for all the factors that would have shaped Singapore's development without Lee Kuan Yew's influence. Nonetheless, it is clear that his leadership played a crucial role in shaping the country's current success and global standing.

What are the religion and religious beliefs of Lee Kwan Yew?

Yew stated; personally, he was Buddhist/Taoist and was proud to be part of that community. He stated this on the record in 2009 during an interview with Mark Jacobson of the National Geographic Magazine. As for his religious views, in his autobiography, he said, "I wouldn't call myself an atheist. I neither deny nor accept that there is a God."

What did Mr Lee Kuan Yew do for Singapore?

He brought a sense of optimism to the entire country. Those that believed that they would be forever poor and forgotten saw through effective leadership and compassion at the highest level of government strong communities could be built and collectively together would make into a great country where the impossible could happen.

What did Lee Kuan Yew believe in?

Yew believed in leadership, proper leadership. Leadership entails tough, unpopular decisions. Lee was not afraid of being out of favor. “I have never been overconcerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader. If you are concerned with whether your rating will go up or down, then you are not a leader. You are just catching the wind … you will go where the wind is blowing. And that's not what I am in this for.”

Yew believed in The Acid Test. "The Acid Test is performance, not promises," Yew often would declare. Yew had a strong moral and ethical compass with zero tolerance for deviations. Yet, he was also human. He made mistakes and took missteps, but he owned up to his faults or bad decisions and made adjustments accordingly. The difference between Yew and others was Yew learned from his mistakes and was never afraid to admit he was wrong.

The Acid Test of leadership is your legacy. Will people in your organization mourn your leaving the company, or will they cheer? Will they say that he/she built a foundation, a team, a direction that left its imprint? 

Who was Singapore's first Prime Minister?

Lee Kuan Yew was the first Prime Minister of Singapore.

Is Lee Kuan Yew still alive?

Lee Kuan Yew passed away in 2015.

Who was Goh Keng Swee and why was he so important for Singapore?

Dr. Goh Keng Swee was part of Yew's economic team and served as Finance Minister.

To quote Lee Kuan Yew from his remarks at Swee's funeral on May 23, 2010: “Of all my cabinet colleagues, it was Goh Keng Swee who made the greatest difference to the outcome for Singapore. He had a capacious mind and a strong character. When he held a contrary view, he would challenge my decisions and make me reexamine the premises on which they were made. As a result, we reached better decisions for Singapore. In the middle of a crisis, his analysis was always sharp, with an academic detachment and objectivity that reassured me."

Leadership is not just about vision and good ideas; it's also about making people believe in it.

Who was Lim Kim San?

San was a part of the powerful economic team for Lee Kuan Yew which also included Dr. Goh Keng Swee and Hon Sui. In February 1960, San was appointed chairman of the Housing Development Board (HDB) and was responsible for revamping the public housing in Singapore. Under San's direction and strong support from Yew, more public units were completed in three years than in the preceding 32 years.

Why is Singapore called The Garden City?

While many cities around the world are called The Garden City, Singapore gained this title with a movement then Prime Minster Lee Kuan Yew on May 11, 1967, when he said Singapore would be transformed from a "concrete jungle" to a city with abundant lush greenery and a clean environment. He wanted to make life more pleasant for the residents of Singapore.

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See Also: Singapore Lee Kuan Yew | What Makes a Leader